1488 Self-Awareness and Dolphins

Sunday, February 21, 2010: 3:50 PM
Room 7B (San Diego Convention Center)
Diana Reiss , Hunter College of the City University of New York, New York, NY, United States
Bottlenose dolphins are highly social mammals with large and complex brains.  Studies conducted in the field and aquaria have provided increasing evidence for the dolphin’s cognitive-social prowess, revealing that dolphins are cultural animals - much of their behavior is learned and passed down through generations.
 They have demonstrated the capacity for mirror-self recognition (MSR), a hallmark of a level of self-awareness, previously thought to be restricted to humans but also shared by the great apes, elephants and magpies.  Despite profound differences in neuroanatomical characteristics and evolutionary histories dolphins, primates (human and great apes), and elephants show striking parallels in both the progression of behavioral stages and actual responses to a mirror providing compelling evidence for convergent cognitive evolution.  MSR may index an increased self-other distinction that also underlies the social complexity and altruistic tendencies shared among these species. 
Can our scientific knowledge be used to influence international policy decisions and ethical considerations of the treatment of dolphins?  Do scientific facts translate and transcend cultural boundaries?  In the dolphin drive hunts in Japan,  there are no restrictions on capture or killing methods of the highly sentient dolphin and other small whales.  The killing methods fail to meet even the most minimal requirements used in U.S. laboratories and slaughterhouses.  Scientists are making the argument on the basis of the scientific evidence that the drive hunts are unjustifiable and indefensible in that they inflict pain and suffering on animals that are intelligent, sentient, socially complex and have capacity to experience pain and suffering.